John Scofield, the well-rounded jazz guitarist, has seen it all in his fifty years in the music business. With more than forty albums as a band leader, Scofield is in a league all of his own. Alongside Pat Methany and Bill Frisell, he is among the Big Three of modern jazz guitarists. He has led numerous jazz lineups throughout his storied career and retains his top-draw status for well-versed music aficionados.
As reported in Guitar Player, Scofield has “played advanced post-bop jazz from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s, explored funk during his mid-to-late 1980s Gramavision years, and trod jazzier terrain during his time with Blue Note from 1990 to 1995.” His 2016’s Country for Old Men earned Scofield a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, and his follow-up, Hudson, explored the music of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, and The Band. Despite a heavy touring schedule, Scofield has stayed out of the limelight, enjoying the comforts of his quiet Hudson Valley home. Scofield’s demure nature camouflages a focused and tireless performing artist who continues to delight crowds worldwide.
Joerg Steineck’s Inside Scofield captures the famed jazz guitarist in the most intimate of ways. Steineck, who is based in Berlin, is also an accomplished filmmaker and audiovisual artist. His prior works include Truckfighters and Lo Sound Desert. With Inside Scofield set for release on Dec. 2, I caught up with Steineck to discuss the genesis of his documentary while also looking at the unpredictable roots of the creative process within music and film.
Jared Feldschreiber: My favorite aspect of Inside Scofield is that it invites new fans to John’s music but it also is designed for those who know his work well. How did you approach John from the outset?
Joerg Steineck: I wrote him an email [that I found on] his website, and a year later, we met for the first time and talked about the idea of making a film. It was helpful that we met and I realized that if he wasn’t a likable person, I probably wouldn’t have done the film. That was the main thing — to have someone in front of me that I liked, and not just for his music and his cultural output, but also his personality. This was important.
JF: Did John ever challenge some of the choices you made in how you presented him on film?
JS: Of course. John has his own opinion of things. He would tell me if something wasn’t going right or didn’t work out for him [such as] the use of his music in the film. It was a specific thing, which took me much longer to edit than I expected because I had to send him some shots I used. I’d send him the music that I thought would fit to specific scenes upfront, so he could listen to it. He’d either approve or reject it. This procedure took some extra time to edit, but it also helped make for a very tight and authentic portrait of his music and personality. Even as it involved occasional teeth grinding, it was necessary to respect his requests. Most often, it felt like something better would sprout from it.
JF: Scofield speaks a lot in the film about being influenced by all kinds of artists. Where does the genesis of your art stem from?
JS: As Scofield says, “everything that makes a real impact on you is part of you and therefore part of your creation.” Without even recognizing it, you carry around many things that other people produced earlier, but then you make them your own by letting them run through your system and let them out again. For me, music is a huge part of my creative process. It certainly adds a strong emotional drive to whatever you create. Where words sometimes tie you up before the creative process even begins, the abstractness and purity of sound and music can be very liberating.
JF: The film doesn’t come across as a ‘vanity project.’ I saw you behind the camera in the sense that I saw a “filmmaker at work.”
JS: In the end, it’s all about the music. Everything in John’s life is about making his music evolve into something new – and then onto a new kind of level. I think it’s the combination of his that makes an artist. I chose not to make anything sensationalized [to get away from this main theme].
JF: What can you say about the visual images of Manhattan in its glory days? The viewer does see some evocative shots of the World Trade Center, for instance.
JS: [A lot] of it is old promotional material for record releases [that is] captured directly from dusty VHS tapes that John provided. I didn’t have the budget to use expensive stock footage, so this helped a lot to revive the atmosphere of old New York that John was part of.
JF: I noticed in the end credits that you recognized your father for introducing you to jazz. Is there something you’d like to add to this?
JS: Sure. He was the first person who told me about John Scofield, and he’s a big jazz fan. I heard jazz around the house throughout my childhood. I always liked jazz growing up, and it’s a nostalgic thing for me. Scofield was part of this and so I listened to him early on without even knowing his name or his background. In my early 20s, I started to listen to it more, and I heard the different styles.
My Dad also showed me a live show of John’s in around ’85, and I liked it a lot. Guitar and jazz can be very strange sometimes, and I don’t always like [this arrangement]. I usually prefer other instruments in jazz other than guitar, but Scofield plays on a different level. He sometimes sounds not like a guitar player but like a multi-instrumentalist. You can hear the influence of Miles Davis.
JF: Speaking of Miles Davis, where did you retrieve the footage of him and John?
JS: It took a lot of time to research to find and then [legally] clear it. I’m very thankful to the great photographers who provided their work for this low-budget project. Their goodwill helped to raise this film to another level.
JF: Do you consider jazz to be a state of mind or a music genre? Are filmmakers essentially jazz musicians by other means?
JS: I consider every music genre to be a state of mind, even Schlager and other quirky genres. Shooting a documentary means [that] you can’t just follow the regular procedure. Sometimes things just happen, and you must act and react in unforeseeable ways with your camera. That’s probably what it’s like for jazz musicians to find their way through an evening of improvising music.
JF: Overall, did you want Inside Scofield to be crafted with a beginning, middle, and end, or did you want it to flow to where John had been taking it?
JS: When you start shooting a documentary film, you always have different ideas and expectations about where this might lead. That’s as important as being flexible — and recognizing new opportunities and using them during the process. It has a lot to do with being fast and precise because you don’t want to dig yourself through one hundred and fifty hours of footage while having no clue as to how it will come together. You must set up a loose structure of what you need to shoot [in order] to be able to tell a story.
JF: There is an aspect of the documentary that seems to be about leading up to “the performance.” Were you conscious of this motif?
JS: This is just a way to tell a story; no matter if it’s in a film or a musical performance. Here it happened because it just made a lot of sense — but it [took place] in the editing process. I wasn’t completely aware of the way it would build up in the final cut while I was shooting.
JF: So, John has seen the complete film?
JS: He’s seen it about six times, and he said he loved it. Sometimes it’s hard to read what he thinks, though. He seems to approve of it, but I’m more interested in what people don’t say. I’m suspicious sometimes (laughs). I would like to go to New York again, but he’s coming to [Oberhausen] Germany in May (2023), so I’ll try to see him there.
More information about Inside Scofield can be found at scofield.joerg-steineck.com/